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David Lynch's Dune was one of the earliest releases on the now-defunct HD-DVD system; I remember being envious of a friend who invested in an expensive new player. Three years later Universal has finally brought the epic 1984 space opera to Blu-ray, with an image that finally does justice to the glorious visuals of designer Anthony Masters and cinematographer Freddie Francis.
Dune has three things in common with the old, shortened version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The marvelous designs for its fantastic settings, costumes and creatures evoke worlds and visions previously unseen in movies. Its unwieldy script leaves one with the impression that big pieces of the story are missing. And both films were largely rejected by the public. Dune came out as Universal's Christmas release in 1984 and was met mostly with indifference, as if it were yet another copycat Star Wars picture like the Japanese Message from Space. It was also slighted as a "two-hour trailer for a twelve-hour movie." The literary faithful resented omissions and changes to Frank Herbert's original text.
Just the same, Dune sets the imagination in motion with a feudal struggle that makes one crucial planet the battleground for galactic domination. Better still, David Lynch's superb casting of at least twenty unique characters is some of the best ever done for a fantasy. The director's vision is as exciting here as it is in his more celebrated, "personal" films.
Universal released a flat-letterboxed disc of the basic theatrical version of Dune in 1998, sending many Dune fans back to their pricey ($225) Japanese laserdiscs. The laser also included a pan-scanned copy of the extended television syndication version of the film, which added a little less than an hour of new material. A later Extended Version DVD gave us both versions of the film in brilliant (but standard-def, of course) enhanced transfers. Like the HD-DVD, this new Blu-ray has the short theatrical version only.
The vast tapestry of Herbert's novel has been simplified to an adventure about interplanetary rivalries and a mystical messiah. The delicate political balance between a number of planets is threatened when the Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) conspires with Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) to destroy the clan of Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) while taking over the mining of the spice Melange on the isolated planet Arrakis. The desert planet is the only source for the powerful spice, a substance that has made a race of Navigator monsters capable of instantaneous intergalactic space travel. Leto's son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) is revealed as the prophesized messiah who will restore order to the galaxy.
Dune sprawls as only a novel with dozens of characters can; the original books included glossaries for names, phrases, definitions and organizations within a galactic empire. Viewers that attended the original release of Dune tell me they were handed a 'cheat sheet' mini-glossary defining twenty or thirty of the film's colorful terms, like Gom Jabbar, Mentat and Bene-Gesserit. Some or all of this list was included as a paper insert in the Extended Version DVD; the Blu-ray has nothing.
Unfortunately for David Lynch, his respect for the source material compelled him to include all of this terminology in his movie, along with exact explanations for all of the exotic characters and their relationships to one other. An entire backstory cosmology is also explained in depth: a dominant sisterhood of telepathic witches has been struggling to breed a super-being over the course of ninety generations, yadda yadda. And don't forget the present political conflict between two clans (we're told there are many more), in which a galactic Emperor and the Harkonnen Clan hatch a conspiracy is to crush the Atreides Clan. But wait, there's still the over-arching power represented by the Spacing Guild and its mutated navigator creatures (giant Eraserheads in forty-foot aquariums), who need the spice of Arrakis just to enable intergalactic commuting.
With all that information and much more to dispense, Dune is at least 50% lecture, whether it comes from the mouths of the characters or a narrator. Unfortunately, expository narration of this kind is traditionally ignored by theatergoers as they settle in with their popcorn. David Lynch demonstrated excellent taste and judgment when he moved up from Eraserhead to the more conventionally challenging The Elephant Man, but it is possible that the sheer size of Dune got the better of him. The film has both too much, and also not enough, exposition. Viewers get tired of listening to characters explain things that they don't want to remember. The who, how, and where of the basic setup is declaimed over and over again, while the "why" is often buried in a half-heard sentence somewhere. We don't discover the story, it's dished out in the cinematic equivalent of the fine print in a product warranty.
Not being a reader of the books, I remember seeing Dune new and understanding practically nothing. It's all just too much to keep in the mental buffer. Lynch insists on leaping ahead with his story so quickly that we can't tell which planet is which. If we pay proper attention to the dazzling visuals, we can't also concentrate on the dense storyline. A giant space navigator with an obscene gash for a melange-sniffing nose has the right idea: "I see plans within plans."
The irony is that Lynch's excellent cast handles much of this constant exposition extremely well, especially when engaged in relevant activity we can see for ourselves, like spice mining. But the rest of the story is a blur. When we can't tell who the teams or the players are, Lynch's eerie "prophecy" montages become an annoying redundancy. Moons? Hands? The laughing face of Sting?1
Although it's sot of a backhanded recommendation, after one's third or fourth viewing Dune begins to look like a much better movie. Characters still talk as if reading from the Bible but we at least know who they are. And they begin to show uncommon richness. Jürgen Prochnow's doomed Leto seems more vulnerable. Kenneth McMillan's Baron Harkonnen is a perfectly-realized vision of nastiness, a memorably foul villain who pulls heart-plugs from shivering flower boys and keeps a doctor specifically to cultivate hideous facial infections to help him maintain his foul temper. Max von Sydow's Dr. Kynes has quiet wisdom and authority, and each of three royal tutors (Patrick Stewart, Freddie Jones, Dean Stockwell) has a sharply defined character. Sting and Paul Smith are perverse meanies under Kenneth McMillan. Smaller functionaries also make their mark, like Jack Nance's tremulous Harkonnen captain and Brad Dourif's goofball Mentat assassin. Dourif's gestures are so stylized, they're brilliant: "It is by will alone that I set my mind in motion."
There's design, and then there's design, and this show has settings, props and costumes that inflame the imagination. Little things like back-collar epaulets make an impression along with extravagant halls with rich tile work and carved wall decorations made from exotic materials. Francesca Annis' hairstyle is an erotic wonderment that looks 100 years old and wonderfully new at the same time. Objects and spacecraft are an intriguing blend of technologies and cultures. The space navigator's Rendezvous with Rama- like pillboxes serve as mass-transport cannisters from one end of the galaxy to another. The little Arrakis hovercraft looks like a boxy DIY kit, similar to vehicles seen in the ancient Sci-fi High Treason (1929).
I remember my friend Mark Sullivan once dismissing Dune because (in 1987) he was "sick of idiotic Luke Skywalker movies about Princes inheriting their rightful kingdoms." I understood exactly what he meant, as George Lucas' franchise promoted a commercial fantasy guaranteed to appeal to under-achieving teenaged boys: a glorious galactic Entitlement Program. Sure, you're failing in school / lazy / ignorant and proud of it ... but you're a dreamer. The universe really is about YOU and nobody else. If the rest of the *&%@! world would just get its act together, it would recognize that YOU are the fabulous furry frog prince. In Star Wars ol' Luke does very little except groom a good attitude and a healthy ego. He doesn't listen to his mentors, or study anything ... all he does to become an instant Master of the Universe is invoke his magical heritage. We used to have jokes about tests in school, where "the force" really doesn't help one's grade one bit. Instead of idly dreaming of grand opportunities to come, aggressive kids Demand Unearned Rewards. As one gets older, one realizes that the worthwhile opportunities present themselves when one prepares and self-improves. That's what a liberal education is for.
Besides, the entire 'world' of Star Wars is a borrowing from Frank Herbert, simplified into an efficient fantasy machine. Beyond that, the mystique of Jedi Baloney wears very thin.
Dune has suspicious fairy tale qualities of its own. But Paul Atreides (19 year-old Kyle McLachlan) is a worker, a dedicated student who has earned the right to stand and fight next to his teachers, and has the makings of a potential great leader. I don't know if the book proffers the same ideas, but Dune the movie now looks like a metaphor for war in the Middle East, with giant outside civilizations fighting to control a crucial resource. Much of the verbal imagery is Arabian, with the struggle of the Fremen referred to as a Jihad, etc.. This is a familiar observation doubtless debated better elsewhere.
Dune's setup, with medieval cultures commanding futuristic technology, has an equally feudal misogynistic streak. Female perfidy is at the center of the political struggle, with the Bene-Gesserit sisterhood conspiring to overthrow the natural order of things by creating and controlling a super-being. Unfortunately, true love intercedes to create a male messiah in the form of Paul, who claims his destiny after being transformed by training, conditioning, and drug-induced mental implosions. Paul's attitude toward empowered women is that they need to be silent and stay that way. Those uppity dames with no eyebrows will no doubt be sent back to the kitchens where they belong. In one deleted scene Paul screams out masculine disapproval at his mother, invoking a masculine perogative to put even the woman who created him in her place. It's a strange image of male-dominated noble bloodlines.
Every so often a rumor starts that Dune will be rebuilt and re-edited by David Lynch, an outcome devoutly to be wish'd. The original 137-minute movie frustrated fans who had glimpsed other scenes in promo teasers or in a promo book (that I wish I'd bought). Dune should have been split into two 2.5-hour movies, as the Salkinds had done with Superman or The Three Musketeers. That ploy later became a fabulous success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.2
An unwieldy compromise version turned up syndicated on TV stations in 1987 or 1988, "A Alan Smithee Film" (sic) that added much new material, albeit pan-scanned. As this interesting cut doesn't appear here, see Savant's review of the Extended Version DVD to read up about its interesting contents. It's too bad that David Lynch was uninterested in extending the film himself; more likely than not there are other reasons that make such a project impractical. A three-hour Lynch cut would be welcomed after the success of Lord of the Rings. And with twenty years to think about the problem, Lynch might have figured out an editorial solution to the puzzle. Heck, I'd happily put up with a completely obscure 'impressionist' version of Dune, if it were Lynch'es doing.
Universal's Blu-ray of Dune is an eye-popping home video version of this ambitious, densely plotted and richly visual David Lynch epic. With the miracle of the remote control enabling us to stop the movie while our friends explain relationships and back story we missed, the narrative weaknesses of Dune become a minor problem.
Only the theatrical, 137-minute version of the show is present in a crisp HD transfer. The rich sets and costumes now seem to leap out of the screen, and in the ultra-wide effects scenes we can now see armies of tiny "Sadukan Warriors" about to be crushed by onrushing Giant Worm monsters. The film's formidable (and mostly synthesized) music score dominates the audio track when Lynch'es industrial presences aren't front and center. The title theme is credited to Brian Eno, but it's only a few notes away from Ronald Stein's bombastic composition for Roger Corman's 1963 The Haunted Palace. The audio is available in DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 .
The Blu-ray retains the unattributed docus that accompanied the Extended DVD Edition. A roundup of international designers and modelmakers display the wonderful designs and effects, with a good explanation of the film's spectacular foreground miniatures engineered by the Spanish art director Benjamín Fernández. The impressive location and production footage seems to have been repurposed from older featurettes. As the featurettes have no input from cast or main production crew (and no bites from Lynch or Freddie Francis) we wonder just what the relationship between Lynch, Universal and the de Laurentiis people is. There is also a selection of stills (favoring producer Raffaella, hmmm...) but no trailer.
Compensating is a "deleted scenes" extra. Rafaella de Laurentiis introduces it with a suspicious speech omitting any mention of efforts to involve David Lynch, and stressing the fact that a super-duper long Lynch cut does not exist. Ms. de Laurentiis explains that the rough cut at its longest was a 4.5 hour assembly interrupted by many "scene missing" place holders for never-completed effects -- which implies that Universal pulled the plug at some point. Raffaella shows us a nice selection of workprint material, some of which is just dailies of characters staring and spouting more mind-numbing exposition. But there are also wonderful unseen bits, like Paul's final wedding plans and the fate of Thufur Hawat (Freddie Jones). I didn't realize until now that Thufur disappears right in the middle of the final throne room confrontation.
One last parting question for the literary Dune fans. The glossary says that Sandworms drown in water. What liquid is the baby worm immersed in when they're milking it? Are they distressing it with threatened drowning as part of the process? And when Paul makes rain on Arrakis at the finale, is he merely demonstrating his new super-powers? Wouldn't the water kill the giant worms and put a stop to the production of the spice Melange?3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Dune Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Deleted Scenes, Featurettes: Designs, Fx, models & miniatures, wardrobe. Note: NO extended 'Alan Smithee' cut is included.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 14, 2010
1. Walt Disney had the obvious solution to Dune's promotion problems: two weeks before the premiere, have a Dune Christmas TV special, with a specially-filmed half-hour adventure about a back-story issue from the film. It could be something that was shot but can't possibly fit into the movie itself, like Duncan Idaho searching for Fremen desert people and observing a worm from afar. The rest of the hour can be David Lynch standing in front of artist's renderings, explaining Frank Herbert's world of imagination and drilling the basics of the Dune "set-up" into the public consciousness. Follow this with liberal sprinkles of exciting film clips, and voila!, instant public awareness!
2. Metropolis was similarly the victim of film-length trends in the 1920s. Fritz Lang had pioneered vast, multi-part films like Die Niebelungen and Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler. But when Metropolis came along, UFA was in such bad shape that American investors Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer moved in and exerted their influence. They were not interested in four-hour serialized epics. Metropolis was given a bungled, aborted brief first run at full length (but projected very fast) and then was mercilessly hacked into incoherence, a job that makes the sectioning of Dune (by Lynch himself, dutifully doing his best for the de Laurentiis group) look benign.
3. Friendly, helpful note from Thomas Jacobi, 2/12/06: I read your review of Dune Extended Edition, and in answer to your parting question I can offer this: you've stumbled upon the biggest difference between the book and the film. The ending with rain on Arrakis is a complete David Lynch fabrication. Indeed rain would kill the worms thus ending spice production. It was also the biggest complaint from Frank Herbert about the movie. -- Thomas Jacobi
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.